By Yavuz Yener
The first week of August always attracts enormous media attention in Turkey. It is the time when the Supreme Military Council (SMC, or YAŞ in Turkish) convenes. This Council meeting determines the promotions and retirements of the military’s top officers. In legal terms, the SMC is responsible for setting the agenda of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), NATO’s second largest army. On the civilian side, the prime minister, who is accompanied by the minister of defense, chairs the three-day long meetings. The Chief of General Staff, the Chiefs of Land, Air and Naval Forces, the Commandant of the Gendarmerie, and all other incumbent generals and admirals serve as the military members of the council.
Different from its preceding sittings, the SMC convened this year without having a government. Although the AK Party won the elections on June 7 with an overwhelming majority, it did not win enough seats to form a single-party government. Since then, a coalition government has been pending. Despite uncertainties regarding the future of the country, the SMC named General Hulusi Akar the Chief of General Staff, or Commander of TAF. Now everybody is wondering, who is this person? Traditionally, the head of the army is considered to be a very critical figure in Turkey, and despite the recent changes in civil-military balances in the country, the military is still a very important actor. So, we must have a look at the General’s personality and accomplishments to analyze what he can bring to TAF’s future.
Hulusi Akar: The Perfect Strategist
Born in 1952, Gen. Hulusi Akar is an infantryman. He is particularly experienced in logistics, planning, and intelligence. He also served as Head of the Turkish Military Academy between 2002 and 2005 while he was still a major general. The new Commander of the Turkish Armed Forces is highly regarded by both military personnel and civilians. Before being appointed as Chief of General Staff, he was the Commander of the Turkish Land Forces. When I asked some military officers who spent time under Gen. Akar’s command about their opinion of Turkey’s new top military official, they all noted his intelligence and wisdom. One senior army officer said:
He is not the kind of general that frightens you so badly that you cannot even make eye contact. There are still many generals who prefer to command their forces by frightening them, but their numbers are decreasing, and General Akar is definitely not one of them. You listen to him not because he is intimidating or because you are obliged to, but because he inspires you when he starts speaking. You respect and admire him when you hear his erudite words.
Another officer cited a modified Turkish proverb used by many infantrymen in the army to illustrate Gen. Akar’s wisdom and cunning. “Su uyur, düşman uyumaz” is the original proverb, meaning that even if water falls asleep, your enemy never will. “Su uyur, Hulusi akar” is their adjusted version, meaning that even if water falls asleep, Hulusi will continue flowing. Furthermore, as Commander of the Land Forces, he paid numerous visits to military stations and bases in critical locations across Turkey to boost the morale of his soldiers. Some soldiers call him “Seri Paşa” implying that he is good at making quick decisions by omitting trivial details. Some others define him as a man who thinks like a civilian, but acts like a soldier.
Despite all these words of praise and celebration, one question naturally comes to mind when thinking about this appointment in the context of Turkey. Will Gen. Akar intervene in politics? Most likely, the answer is no. He worked closely with his predecessor, Gen. Necdet Ozel, who strove very hard to keep his institution in line with democratic norms. Indeed, keeping in mind that Gen. Akar has even been considered to be Gen. Ozel’s protégé, it is highly unlikely that a major conflict will emerge between Gen. Akar and the new government. In fact, Gen. Ozel has engaged with those on the political frontlines since 2011, working very closely with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his predecessor Abdullah Gul on several occasions. Like Gen. Ozel, Gen. Akar has gained a reputation for being cooperative and open-minded. Understanding the concerns of politicians and the institutional perceptions of the military, he has been the perfect strategist, bridging the gap between policy and military affairs. Although it would be imprudent to predict that there will be no disparities or controversies between the military and politicians in the upcoming period, Gen. Akar is expected to stand by democratic values and the rule of the law.
The future of TAF under Akar’s command
The dry aspect of civil-military relations aside, the real question involves the future of TAF. Since the late 2000s, the Turkish military has found itself in the process of a major transition that has been arduous and very costly, albeit necessary. Incarnating nationalist taboos and committing political wrongdoings for decades, the military has been harshly criticized for not having focused on its real job. Many military officers may not accept such excoriations, but considering the level of sophistication of the issues that are being debated by major world militaries, it is apparent that TAF falls far behind global trends. Now that the conflict between generals and politicians has been resolved, TAF has to start addressing its urgent problems. This is the area in which Gen. Akar and his staff will face their true test.
At this point, some uncertainties are striking. Can Turkey have a strong area defense capacity? Can TAF modernize the rest of its archaic, Cold War era weapons systems? Can it elevate the number of armored and mechanized forces? What about counter-insurgency (COIN)? Can we finally turn our 40-year-old COIN experience into a coherent doctrine or system of training so sophisticated that it can offer considerable expertise to the world’s major armies? Can TAF experiment with its new weapons systems procured from Turkey’s industrial base?
Good things may be on the horizon for Turkey when it comes to these challenges. The military is evolving mentally and materially. It has already started planning and preparing for the next 20 years, adapting to the changing threat environment. The number of personnel in the army with a master’s or doctoral degree is increasing. One source, for instance, states that there are over 60 TAF personnel studying abroad at a graduate-level, predominantly in Western countries. Gen. Akar himself worked laboriously on developing military cooperation with the U.S. and British militaries. Most recently, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno hosted Gen. Akar last January in Fort Myer. Moreover, new procurement deals are likely to follow in the future, allowing military equipment to be modernized with the maximum participation of Turkey’s national defense industrial base. Moreover, the Turkish Cyber Defense Command was launched in 2013 to act as the military’s vanguard against cyber threats. Gen. Ozel started most of these initiatives, and his successor is likely to follow suit.